Political Poetry

This week, two of my more political poems were published in the international journal VillageatWexfordEntranceTuck. One of them, “Hilton Head November,” caught the attention of a reporter for a regional publication that serves Hilton Head and surrounding communities. I visited Hilton Head one month after Hurricane Matthew and a week after the 2016 presidential election. One thing I saw –

At a great pine blow-down,

walls ripped aside like playing cards

expose gated communities

as if they were mere women.

The reporter contacted me to do an interview about how the poem came to be and whether it was critical of Hilton Head’s affluence. He thought my perspective might interest readers and offer a different viewpoint from the ones they usually come across.

In the course of working in English Departments at various colleges and universities, I’ve heard many a screed against mixing politics and poetry. Not surprisingly, in the 1970’s and 1980’s, these diatribes were often directed at women writers (Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde) who “used” poetry to transmit political messages about the women’s movement, lesbian culture, and race and class divisions. Some literary critics have argued that any attempt to insert a message into a poem violates the purity of poetry as an art form.

I find these arguments specious at best, and I love using an academic word like “specious” (means “seems right at first glance, but actually wrong” or “attractive on the outside, but deceptive) to describe them. Audre Lorde once said “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” and I believe her, but I still love throwing the master’s words back at him. Hard.

Poetry, like all of the arts, has always been used to advance political positions. Poetry, like all of the arts, is by nature impure. All kinds of nasty stuff gets mixed into the creative process.

Consider two artists who are dead and beyond reproach: Michelangelo and Shakespeare. Michelangelo painted for the Renaissance-era Catholic Church, a powerful political force. He created images of God and other characters from the Bible that provoked a useful and appropriate sense of awe in the populace. Many of Shakespeare’s plays center on political institutions (monarchy, anyone?) and struggles for control. It’s nothing new.

Political poetry is experiencing a resurgence in Trump-era America, and I’m grateful. It challenges our assumptions and brings us together as we speak and act against the injustices and oppressions of yesterday and today.

audre adrienne meridelBut don’t get me wrong: I’m also a true believer in the power of confessional literature to widen our understanding of what it means to be human. I admire the brave writers who examine their personal lives, bring old secrets out into the light, and share their desires, mistakes, and vulnerabilities. Because as I learned from the activist/theorist/artists/writers of the 1970’s and 1980’s, the personal – no matter how much we try to insist it’s unique – is always political.

 

Smart Move: Investing in 50+ Workers

Earlier this week, the Gainesville Sun published an op-ed 50+ for gville Sun November 2017I wrote about why Florida should be supporting its older workers. Investing in 50+ workers is a smart move for all states though — by 2022, 35 percent of the American workforce will be over 50 years of age.

Older job-seekers need training and education in high-demand skills to stay or become competitive in today’s job market. Ongoing training, especially in fast-changing technology, is a feature of today’s work environment for employees of any age.

Some older career-changers may also need general education training before they can succeed with specialized training for high-tech, knowledge-based careers.

Click on the link for the full article.

http://www.gainesville.com/opinion/20171120/michele-leavitt-assisting-workers-over-50-should-be-florida-priority

The Long Game – Facing Reality in the Environmental Century by Stephen Mulkey

Our efforts to respond to climate and biosphere disruption are part of the long game, a game that must be played over centuries, rather than decades. The so-called normal climate of the 20th century, which we use as our meteorological baseline, is gone forever. The Earth will not see such a climate again for millennia, if ever. The stark reality of our situation means that everything we do now is for the benefit of future generations that will occupy a massively transformed planet. Our target for building a sustainable civilization should be 2100 and beyond. In the face of progressive disruptions of the climate and biosphere and the associated losses and hardships, we must lay the foundation for a civilization capable of thriving under conditions never before seen in our evolutionary history.

via The Long Game – Facing Reality in the Environmental Century — The Environmental Century

Hurrichange is here

The Environmental Century

170907-hurricane-irma-katia-jose-satellite-njs-406p_c8851aa4245f314c3e93bb62fae72af6.nbcnews-fp-1200-80011:15 am EDT September 7. NOAA.

“So there is a desire to advance this climate change agenda, and hurricanes are one of the fastest and best ways to do it. You can accomplish a lot just by creating fear and panic, you don’t need a hurricane to hit anywhere.”
Rush Limbaugh 7 September 2017 a day before he evacuated from his South Florida home.

Late last week I left my comfortable, dry, overpriced apartment in Alexandria, VA, to return to my home in Gainesville, FL, to be with my partner Michele and our dogpersons, Heather and Keeper, as we face Irma. As I write this Sunday morning, projections continue to indicate that winds in North Central Florida will exceed any in memory for this region. It is likely that the destruction of infrastructure in the region will be severe. Lives will be lost. My heart goes out to Ft. Myers…

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Coming to terms with my inner hypervigilante

It’s thrilling to have a piece published by an organization you admire – so I’m especially delighted to have this essay in The Establishment, a groundbreaking online feminist magazine.

Parallels

Earlier this year, I wrote a blog post about my anxiety over the current political situation and how it was interfering with my writing life. This current essay is an expansion and revision of that original post, and like all forays into revision, I learned so much from the process.

In this case, I also learned so much from the questions The Establishment’s co-founder and editor Nikki Glouderman asked me. Those questions forced me to dig  deeper into the research on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and hypervigilant behaviors and to further clarify my own thinking.

The traumas I suffered took place long ago, and I’ve often acknowledged those traumas in my writing. But, I’m very resistant to acknowledging anything that smacks of my weaknesses/disabilities/disorders. My identity depends on being a survivor, on rising above adversity. In revising this essay, I ended up admitting that PTSD gets in my way, and that it may always get in my way.  So thank you to Nikki and Est., and to the magic of writing and revision, for pushing me toward some self-awareness.

Reading to Write

I don’t read as much as I want to lately, partly because of my compulsive anxiety over current political events. But this past weekend, I picked up a book and got totally sucked into it in the way I used to get sucked in to any story that seemed either like my own or totally different from my own. Preferably both at the same time.

The book is Hunger, a memoir by Roxane Gay. I gobbled it for information, for the pleasure of engaging with the author’s mind, for the elegance of the prose, for the plot. Yes, plot. IMHO, memoirs need a plot as much as a novel does. Without a plot, there’s not much reason for the reader to keep reading. As human beings, we’re wired to chase the future, to crave knowledge of what happens next.

Roxane Gay and I don’t seem to have much in common. She’s young, by my 60-year old standards. She’s Haitian-American, and I’m Irish-Jewish-African-Native American. She’s over 6 feet tall, and I’m 5 foot 3 and shrinking. But we both love reading and writing, and we both pay attention, in our own ways, to American culture. Also, she’s a one “N” Roxane, and I’m a one “L” Michele.

I recommend this book to everyone, but especially to writers who want to see how plot works. Not wanting to give away any spoilers here, I’ll just say Roxanne Gay is very, very good at planting hunger in a reader.

What will my family think?

Memoir writers ruminate over questions like that. We write about our own pasts, and that often means writing about family members and spilling old secrets. Some family members want the secrets kept in the dark. If the memoirist reveals them, she risks losing the love and security of family.

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Secrets fuel the plots of many memoirs. The revelation of secrets is often satisfying to readers because the revelation resolves other plot points. Example: Memoirist “A” never fit in with her family; the secret revealed is that she’s adopted. Memoirist “B” is wildy promiscuous as a teenager; the secret revealed is that he was sexually abused by the parish priest.

Some memoirists wait until “everyone is dead” before telling their stories because they don’t want to risk hurting others, but that approach has risks, too. Waiting until everyone is dead means there’s no opportunity to fact-check, or to get the other side of a story.

Waiting in general, though, is a good idea. Most writers need distance from a subject before they can write about it with grace and insight. That seems especially true if the subject is some sort of betrayal. Dashing off a piece when anger and resentment are still burning usually makes for a story no one wants to read. And waiting gives the writer time to make connections between one event and another.

So how to write about family without risking rejection? In addition to waiting for the story to mature, I’ve had positive results from telling people I’m writing about them. I’ve been surprised to learn that a lot of people in my family want to be written about. I don’t ask family members to pre-approve my work — decisions about the work itself are mine — but I do ask if they do or don’t want me to tag them on social media once a piece is published.

About a year ago, I told my niece BeeBee I was writing an essay about her. I’ve witnessed some of her journey from hyperactive kid to addicted, convicted, gun-toting meth dealer to personal salvation and inner peace. Her story is much bigger than me, but I wanted to tell a piece of it.

“What’s the essay about?” she asked.

That was a hard question for me; I never really know what a piece of writing is about until it’s close to being finished. After a minute, though, I said “It’s about how much I love you.” And I knew that was the truth even though I wasn’t sure at that point which events would make it into the story, and what its theme would be.

There’s no magic formula for writing without risk of being scorned or disowned. Everyone’s family is different and has its own rules of secret-keeping. I suspect, though, that the more compassion you can bring to a story, even toward those who have made mistakes or have betrayed you (including your younger self), the lower your risk of being shunned. Also, the more compassion and understanding you write with, the better your story will be. People read memoir to make sense of their own lives, and to make their lives better.

I’ve written a lot, and hope to write more, about my family and our crazy antics and struggles. Many of us are addicts; many are convicted felons. All of us have weaknesses and have made mistakes.

The brilliant James Baldwin said it best in “Sonny’s Blues,” his story about two brothers: “For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.”

I’m lucky that my family honors storytelling, and that they know only one way to love: the unconditional way. When I write about my family, I want readers to feel the light in all our darkness.

 

The Honeybee

 

New essay in The Rumpus. A story about a loving, courageous young woman, one of many loving, courageous young women I’m honored to call family.Honeybee

“I jump out and wrap my arms around her. In the embrace, I can’t tell if she is really off drugs, but I can tell all the things I absolutely need to know. She’s alive. She’s healthy. She can still love.”

 

 

Happy birthday, little book!

Last week, Walk Away turned the big one year old. For the famous limited-time-only (until this fall), both U.K. and American Prime members can read it for free. Just click on the “Kindle $0.00 Prime” button next to the book cover. The U.K. page is the same, except the cool British pound sign (£) replaces the dollar sign.

Walk Away Prime

If you do read the little book, please consider leaving a brief review.

Many thanks!